Thursday, December 25, 2014

Five Favorite Films of 2014

I haven’t previously posted any year-end lists here on my blog. Back in my younger days, I used to compile them annually, and I took the whole process quite seriously. I’m not sure exactly why that ritual became less important to me as time went on. I think it was partly because as I grew a bit older, I started to realize how much the entire culture is based on the idea of selling things, and year-end lists are just another aspect of that consumer mentality. Yet a handful of movies that I saw this year resonated deeply enough that writing something about them in retrospective summary seemed like a worthwhile task once again.

My favorite film of the year was Jonathan Glazer’s distinctive abstraction Under the Skin, one of Scarlett Johansson’s arthouse projects. It’s not a movie that I initially thought I’d like, nor even one that I’d been planning to see, but after some trustworthy recommendations, I was excited to check it out. Its style, themes, and mood reminded me of Stanley Kubrick, and I think the film is actually as good as Kubrick, too. The more mysterious elements — who (or what) Johansson’s character is, where in the cosmos she comes from, where the random men she picks up in a van disappear to, what her unexplained sidekick on the motorcycle has to do with it — are the main reasons why the movie has lingered in my mind many months after watching it. The mysteriousness could be because I’m unfamiliar with the book on which the film is based, though I’ve read that the book and film are quite different. I was also staggered by the movie’s daring visual effects, which left me wondering how they were accomplished.

Under the Skin would fit perfectly as a double-feature with my second favorite movie of the year, Alain Guiraudie’s pensive gay French noir thriller Stranger by the Lake. Set entirely at an idyllic lakeside cruising area for men, with a cast comprised exclusively of men, it’s an explicit (and at times unabashedly sexual) version of what Under the Skin presents only allegorically. No film I’ve seen captures the rhythms and rules of a gay cruising area more realistically, immersing its audience in those codes and expectations. We begin to know who the characters are by which cars are parked in the lakeside lot, as we observe the daily ebb and flow of the traffic. It’s not a movie about community, and it’s also not really about individuals. Relationships, I guess, but a very particular kind. The film’s been likened to Hitchcock often, and the comparison is apt. Typical plot points like murder and sex serve as entryways for an exploration of the darker, or at least less often acknowledged, aspects of desire, loneliness, and human psychology.

My favorite documentary of 2014 was Finding Vivian Maier, an astounding portrait of an eccentric amateur street photographer whose work was discovered after her death, when a young man named John Maloof (who also co-directed the film) purchased boxes of her negatives inexpensively at auction. Little did he know what he’d unearthed. Maier’s voluminous images are often indelible and stunning, and I was perplexed that some critics and museums have refused to recognize her artistry. Her choice to work as a live-in nanny, meaning she didn’t have to pay rent, gave her time to wander around Chicago and other cities to spontaneously find her candid photographic subjects. The lesson is one of looking: pay close attention and you will find magic. Maier’s biography, on the other hand, proves to be enigmatic and sometimes harrowing. She died in 2009, completely destitute and homeless. While true artists often fly under the radar, the fact that her art remained unseen in her lifetime is wrong. Maloof's and Charlie Siskel’s well-crafted documentary humanely corrects that wrong.

The last two films that I enjoyed most this year, Steven Knight’s Locke and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, are two very different kinds of cinematic experiments. Locke is an experiment of scope within extremely close quarters; the entire film takes place in real time inside the car of the title character, unforgettably portrayed by Tom Hardy, as he drives to London overnight, talking to various people on his phone for the duration of the trip. Although it sounds like a bland exercise, the effect is totally riveting throughout. My attention never went slack because the movie itself never did either, gradually escalating the tension from phone call to phone call. Hardy’s performance is nothing short of miraculous, mostly because everything is focused non-stop on his facial expressions and his reactions to the voices on the other end of the line. I’ll keep the details of the storyline a secret here so that viewers can experience those for themselves. Suffice it to say that Locke is a ride that’s unlike any other the cinema has offered until now.

The same could be said of Boyhood. It’s also an experiment in scope, but one that’s the opposite of Locke since Linklater’s innovative movie unfolds over twelve full years of its characters’ lives, as well as the actors’ lives, filmed for a few days at a time during each year of that timeframe. We watch the central character grow up and mature, from age 6 to 18, right before our eyes. Luckily, Ellar Coltrane has the kind of laidback manner that’s easy to grow up with. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, playing his divorced parents, also age gracefully despite their individual characters’ various trials and tribulations over time. Arquette’s portrayal is her very best work; the scenes of domestic violence from her character’s second marriage felt frighteningly familiar to me, as stark and powerful as the ones that I recall from my own childhood home. Linklater should win this year’s Oscar for directing. Boyhood is unprecedented in cinematic history.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Days of Heaven (dir. Terrence Malick, 1978)

It’s far past time that I write something about what I’ve long considered to be the most beautifully photographed movie ever, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.  Thousands of other people, of course, have already made this assessment.  But when a film is so filled with rhapsodic images, that’s how individuals respond; they rhapsodize, and they do so because the astonishing principal cinematography by the late Néstor Almendros guarantees such a response.  When an audience is quietly presented with one rapturous image after another, the viewer’s perceptions are elevated (or sublimated) to a higher level, at which expressing in words one’s appreciation for a newfound understanding of beauty becomes almost too daunting a task.

There’s a narrative here that I’ll go into later, though it’s best to start with the importance of the images themselves.  Rarely does a director of Hollywood movies choose to let the images do the vast majority of the work.  Silence is expensive unless it’s written into the film itself, as Malick’s sparse screenplay exemplifies.  The long stretches of silent contemplation soothe as much as they unsettle, in order to convey fully the feeling of being alone in the world.  The film follows a group of nomadic migrant workers, whose solitude is palpable even when they’re together, forming a kind of desperate, haphazard community.

The film's cinematographer, Néstor Almendros, died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1992.  His eyesight was already beginning to fail when Days of Heaven was being filmed.  He worked carefully and improvisationally, insisting that the movie incorporate as much natural light as possible.  (Apparently, some of the lighting crew quit the film in frustration because he didn’t give them enough work.)  This technique was inspired by early motion pictures from the silent film era.  Rightly, Almendros won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work on Days of Heaven, his first Hollywood feature.

I remember the first time I saw Days of Heaven, on the big screen at the Harvard Film Archive about twenty years ago, which was a mesmerizing and unforgettable experience.  I also recall that I was alone in the back of the theater, with only a group of several film students who were sitting together in the middle row of the auditorium.  They applauded when Néstor Almendros’ name appeared on screen during the opening credits.  I took note of that then, and soon after, I understood why.  Days of Heaven is often referred to as a poetic film, and it’s because poetry relies equally on the beauty and strangeness of its imagery to convey its implicit messages.

The movie was filmed on the wide plains of Alberta, Canada, but the landscape is a stand-in for the open wilds of the American midwest just across the border.  No film better captures that landscape and its euphoric aura of boundless autumnal light at harvest time.  Many of the scenes were filmed during “magic hour,” although as Almendros made clear in retrospective interviews, it was never an entire hour.  Most scenes at that time of day, after the sunset and before nightfall, were filmed in about twenty minutes.

Days of Heaven is endearingly narrated by a feisty young girl, Linda (Linda Manz), who’s traveling west by train from Chicago with her older brother and guardian, Bill (Richard Gere), and Bill’s girlfriend, Abby (Brooke Adams).  Bill got into a fateful skirmish with a foreman at his factory job and had to skip town fast.  To avoid problems on the roads and rails as they seek migrant farm work for a few dollars at a time, Bill and Abby masquerade as brother and sister, too, which ends up causing them trouble with suspicious strangers on more than one occasion.

Deep in the American heartland, they find work as sackers on a sprawling, idyllic wheat farm owned by a handsome young overseer who’s billed only as The Farmer (Sam Shepard).  Eavesdropping on a house doctor’s visit, Bill learns that the farmer is slowly dying from a terminal illness and may be dead within a year.  He convinces Abby, somewhat against her will, to pursue a relationship with the farmer, hoping that within a couple of years, they’ll inherit the farm, house, and a sizable amount of money.  The ruse works, and Abby becomes the farmer’s wife, while Bill and Linda stay to live on the farm as members of Abby’s family, or so the farmer initially thinks.  Before very long, his suspicions grow and turn into anger at the perceived deception and his failing health.

Clearly, Malick’s quietly intelligent screenplay is built on an archetypal story, a love triangle with a revenge subplot.  As often as Malick relies on seemingly formulaic narrative components, each of these instances is handled so distinctively that they belong entirely to this film.  Romantic scenes of the happily married couple riding a sleigh through the snow in winter on the abandoned farm are so precisely picturesque that they become Malick’s own, as do the frantic scenes of a plague of insects that invades the wheat crop and destroys the land when the vengeful farmer sets the fields ablaze.

All of this is handled with a fluidity, grace, and immediacy to which most other filmmakers can only aspire.  This sort of classic tale requires classic storytelling, yet what gives Malick’s film its lasting power is how thoroughly it creates its own impressionistic rules.  As audience members we know where all of this is going, but scene after scene still takes us by surprise in some unexpected way.  The emotion intensifies as the pace slackens; then the emotion will suddenly relax as the pace speeds up again.  After the film’s main trio must flee the burnt-out farm and make their way to a boat to escape, the whole tone shifts in a way that’s perfectly sensible and also feels like we’re suddenly in another movie, when in fact we’re just in the final act of this majestically tragic adventure that’s both too beautiful for reality and totally true to life.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Alfred Corn, Unions (Barrow Street Press, 2014)

Unions, Alfred Corn’s eleventh book of poetry, is his most accessible collection.  The poems are still diverse and demanding in their references and allusions, as well as in their variety of forms, but those aspects don’t call attention to themselves, instead taking a relaxed approach and inviting the reader to follow suit.  It might also be because I’m currently twice the age I was when I first read Corn’s poetry as an undergraduate twenty years ago that the density of references ceases to distract me; now, I recognize and understand the majority of them.  I can better appreciate, too, Corn’s deft sleights of hand in slipping them discreetly into his poems.

This is an elegantly structured and sequenced volume, and its title motif is intentionally woven through the book.  Among the collection’s myriad kinds of unions are transatlantic journeys to places that figure into roughly a fourth of the poems.  The epic “Eleven Londons” recalls in close detail a series of extended stays in the city over a period of four decades, carefully documenting the sociocultural changes that took place in the author’s life, from the days of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison to debates over same-sex marriage and post-9/11 wariness.

“A city is a person,” writes Corn midway through the poem, and its segments, constructed like free-flowing journal entries, are built around that notion; the city changes as much as the poem’s author and the culture that surrounds them both, just as his perspective on all of it changes simultaneously.  A steady, informal rhythmic underpinning that’s reminiscent of Derek Walcott’s lines keeps the sum of the parts intact.  Having visited London annually each spring myself for the past two decades, I matched much of my own catalog of memories with Corn’s:  Charing Cross, the National Portrait Gallery, Camden Lock, Regent’s Park, Little Venice, Covent Garden, the bounty of West End theatrical productions.  We’ve even seen some of the same shows.

Among the book’s other United Kingdom-based poems, I particularly like “Bloody,” an incisive etymology of that curious English adverb and its lack of (polite) American counterparts.  In a jaunt across the Irish Sea, “Dublin Night” is also indelibly memorable and haunting, with its lone shadow of a figure drifting through the bustling center of the town in darkness, wondering if it might be best to disappear into the black water running under a bridge.

Despite such solitary glimpses, there are also, certainly, interpersonal unions represented at points throughout the volume — friendships (“Bob”), rivalries (“Doppelgänger”), romances (“In Half-Light”), sexual relationships (“Möbius Strip”).  But among the interpersonal poems, the most impressive and intriguing one for me is “Common Dwelling,” a poem about near-strangers, one’s neighbors residing in the hive of a communal building.  We live in a world in which fewer and fewer people can afford to purchase a house, so it’s a scenario that almost all of us can relate to:  “the enviable neighbor couple / who shift and stir less than an arm’s length / behind the headboard, their murmurs / sifting into consciousness / as though no sheetrock intervened.” No other poem that I know of conveys that uneasy form of sonic intimacy so effectively.  Or this:

“Heavy boots not muted by rugs clunk
about on the floor above.  Months
of obstinate slogging guarantee
their pace would instantly anywhere
be recognized, if not the pacer.
Odd moments in the day he launches
his campaign with a ruckus that feels
coercive, sure, but on behalf of what?”

Formally, Corn turns in many different directions in Unions with skillful subtlety.  In addition to plenty of free verse, there are several poems in rhymed couplets and quatrains, a few semi-sonnets, a trenchant villanelle about growing older, a poem written in Sapphic syllabic stanzas, even a sort of vertical palindrome.  Another kind of form arises from thematically strategic pairings of poems that make the pieces resonate more deeply in sequence.  For instance, a contemplation of the great pessimists from history and literature is followed by an existential meditation on the cast-off, broken wreckage out behind a pottery kiln, a scene of scattered fragmentation that nevertheless maintains its own sense of beauty.

The same image could be applied to the American and global political landscapes as Corn aptly describes them.  From allegorically political poems like “The Wall” to more direct and pointed indictments like “Cascade of Faces,” Corn navigates back and forth between a citizen’s commentary and active resistance.  Yet he always seems to emphasize human beings’ ongoing responsibility to each other, ultimately, even if our contemporary cybernetic world makes those connections ironically more difficult to forge.  Today, our potential unions often throw our loneliness and solitude into stark relief within “the musicosmic comedy of time.”

That solitude takes center stage in “Hunting Season,” probably my favorite poem from the collection.  Several alternating strands of imagery — an approaching thunderstorm, a man out walking his dog, another listening to a classical composition on the radio while watching from a window — escalate to a powerful crescendo that suggests imagination, even imagination into some distant residual memory of a past life in ancient times, may be the only real remedy and redemption.  Just like in the rest of Corn’s work itself, music is the vehicle, of course, that gets this poem’s speaker there:  “Sing, goddess. / Lightheaded, I’m ready to be torn apart.”

The poem also suggests that our increasingly technological existence will only ever carry us back to nature, which is where the book begins, with a gorgeous ode to the wind titled “All It Is.”  “Any terrain you find arises from all / that came before,” Corn surmises, after tracing a breeze that makes its way through treetops and over wetlands.  The same could be said of how this book itself came to be, arising from all of Corn’s books, poems, and experiences that came before.  One more union, then, or rather, many unions across the vast divisions of time and space.  As Corn closes one poem early in the collection, “Since what divides things joins them, too, united.”

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tori Amos at Boston Opera House (August 15th, 2014)

I’ve recently come back around to being a Tori Amos fan again, in part because she’s never left the game.  Despite weathering a series of upheavals in an industry that’s less than friendly to women over thirty, much less fifty, her artistic output continues at a prolific pace.  Tori’s first three albums have always been special to me, especially her 1992 debut Little Earthquakes, which I’ll forever associate with my sophomore year of college; that album was released right around the time when my whole life changed and I decided to move to Boston.  Though her music remains ever interesting, Boys for Pele (1996) was the last Tori Amos album that I really loved in its entirety, and Scarlet’s Walk (2002) was her last album from which I enjoyed the majority of the songs.  On each of Tori’s seven studio albums released since then, only a handful of tracks have usually stood out to me, even if I greatly admire her body of music as a whole.

Tori’s solo show last night at Boston Opera House was the third time I’ve seen her in concert, and the first time I’ve heard her perform without a band.  There’s no doubt that she commanded the space, both vocally and via the magnetism of her persona.  In a tight 90-minute set (two songs were cut from the encore due to the theater’s curfew…or because Tori took too long to get onstage), the setlist spanned her entire solo career, though it was a heavily early-era selection.  That’s totally fine with me since I adore her early albums, but I’m sure most Toriphiles would be surprised that out of the twenty songs she performed, eight of them came from the first five years of Tori’s output:  a volcanic rendition of the title number from Little Earthquakes, three Under the Pink-era songs, and four tracks from Boys for Pele.  Tori knows her audience, and because Boston’s a college town, she also knows that the folks in the audience who loved those early albums during their college years are the ones who jumpstarted her career back then.

After the standard opener “Parasol,” Tori’s launch into “Caught a Lite Sneeze” set a thrilling tempo for the crowd.  (To the woman sitting in front of me who blew her nose throughout the entire song:  very literal timing!)  “Secret Spell,” a song from 2007’s American Doll Posse that I’d never taken much notice of before, sounded gorgeous in a live setting and took on an enchanting layer of allure.  I’m still a bit shocked that my favorite number of the night was “Baker Baker.”  While I’ve always found this little breakup song to be innocuously moving, it acquired mournful new depth for me, even minus John Philip Shenale’s lush strings arrangement from the album version, when Tori sang it alone at her piano out on the stage.  “Time / thought I’d made friends with time” among the song’s closing lines felt like stopping time itself as Tori delivered them.

Although Tori didn’t play my request (Corey Hart’s 1985 synthpop epic “Never Surrender”) during the Lizard Lounge segment of the show, the other requests that she chose to perform certainly did not disappoint.  Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston,” with a surprise denouement from Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” was a poignant location-specific choice.  However, I’ve lived in the city for over two decades now, so I’m not exactly desperate to hear any more songs about Boston.  But Tori’s dark and inspired electronic mash-up of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and the “white-winged dove” refrain from Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” absolutely slaughtered the audience.  Altogether, it was probably one of the best Lizard Lounge pairings of the tour thus far, and it was also cute to hear Tori introduce the covers by saying she couldn’t remember if she’d ever performed them live before since “we menopausal women can’t always remember things.”

All those crying white doves offered Tori an elegant poetic segue into “Black-Dove (January),” from 1998’s from the choirgirl hotel, as well as “Black Swan,” a rare 1994 B-side from the single for “Pretty Good Year.”  Unfortunately, I must concur with some past concertgoers about the pre-recorded backing tracks that Tori used for both “Cornflake Girl” and “Wedding Day.”  They simply didn’t fit the vibe of this intimate solo show, and they also drowned out Tori’s vocals to some extent.  I think the point of picking up the pace with backing tracks was to invite the kids to rush down the aisles to the stage of the opera house; Tori actually waved for everybody to crowd the stage at the thumping start of “Cornflake Girl,” much to the dismay of the venue’s frenzied house managers, who kept trying, unsuccessfully, to clear the aisles until the end of the evening.  “Hey Jupiter” made for a lovely, contemplative closer.

The best song Tori performed from her most recent album, Unrepentant Geraldines, was “Oysters,” a pensive mediation on survival and art-making, even a metaphor for songwriting itself.  I wish I’d had a chance to hear Tori play “Invisible Boy,” the stunning closing track from the album, one of the most heartbreaking songs she’s written in years.  But oh well — there’s always the next tour.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Andy Bey, The World According to Andy Bey (HighNote Records, 2013)

Last year, the legendary yet under-celebrated jazz performer Andy Bey released his tenth studio album, the phenomenal The World According to Andy Bey, which received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album.  Bey’s latest release is an intimate solo affair for his voice and piano; it contains four original songs, along with seven fine renditions of some classic and lesser-known standards.  As the album’s individually focused title suggests, Bey’s four-octave baritone takes up as much time and space as it needs throughout these eleven tracks.  His warm vocals are by turns relaxed and impassioned, improvisational yet studied, burnished by time though never, ever tired.

Andy Bey was born in 1939 in Newark, New Jersey.  At age seventeen he formed a jazz trio, Andy and the Bey Sisters, with siblings Geraldine and Salome.  Moderate success throughout the 1960s and 1970s was followed by a fifteen-year hiatus from recording, from 1975 to 1990.  Bey’s career picked up again in the mid-1990s, just when his personal life began to take a darker turn.  Twenty years ago in 1994, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive, and he’s kept a steady regimen of yoga and a vegetarian diet ever since to keep himself healthy.  Bey came out publicly as gay around the time of his diagnosis and has remained quietly outspoken for two decades now.

The four original compositions on The World According to Andy Bey are especially noteworthy, both for their distinctive spirit and their unique lyrical approach.  “Dedicated to Miles,” Bey’s tribute to iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, is a wordless bebop number that features Bey scatting an imitation of Davis’ playing style throughout the song.  The three other self-penned tracks are like sung journal entries that comment on the state of the contemporary world and offer gentle advice on how to survive it.  “The Demons Are After You” suggests that escaping one’s problems is “an individual journey, it will never work for the masses.”  “There’s So Many Ways to Approach the Blues” places emotion over intellect and argues by its end that telling the truth about hardship is the only real way to persevere.  And the brilliant “Being Part of What’s Happening Now” considers our current cultural moment and the importance of remaining in touch with the world around us.

Among the album’s standards are three George and Ira Gershwin tunes, “But Not for Me,” “Love Is Here to Stay,” and “’S Wonderful,” along with Ira Gershwin’s lyrics on a sublime closing rendition of Harold Arlen’s “Dissertation on the State of Bliss.”  Originally subtitled “Love and Learn Blues,” the song is a clever, point-blank assessment of heartache:  “You may have climbed the tree of knowledge / But when you love you really learn.”  Another Harold Arlen song, “The Morning After,” dwells on similar themes, while the album’s opening cut, Richard Rodgers’ and Lorenz Hart’s “It Never Entered My Mind,” contemplates loneliness on the far side of heartbreak’s distant retrospect.

In Tony Cox’s 2004 interview with Bey that aired on National Public Radio, Cox asked Bey about the feeling of melancholy in his music.  Bey replied, “Oh, when you live a certain amount of life, I mean, you try to breathe into a song a concept of what you’re feeling at that’s always trying to get inside the song with an intimacy in mind.”  On every inspired moment of The World According to Andy Bey, the singer/pianist finds his way inside and fully inhabits each song. The result is a vital new collection of jazz classics.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

16th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 18th - 22nd, 2014)

I’ve always said that Provincetown is the ideal place to host a film festival.  During this past week’s 16th annual festival, I watched 17 movies total (nine narrative features and eight documentaries, as well as some short films), all of which were of excellent quality.  This year the weather happened to be perfect, too, making many people ask how I could spend so much time inside a dark theater, rather than heading to the beach.  I’ve often contemplated feeling guilty about that, but films are soul-regenerating experiences for me and therefore justify missing out on a bit of sunshine.  Plus, with a diversity of festival venues in easy walking distance of each other, and with stunning ocean views as one travels between venues, I saw nearly as much sun as I did movies.

The documentaries in particular at this year’s festival felt uniformly strong.  I think this has been a trend in recent cinema over the past decade.  Reality can often be more visceral and unsettling than fiction, though fiction is almost always drawn from reality, so reality and fiction mutually reinforce one another.  Startlingly, my two favorite documentaries in this year’s festival were about criminal cases, both of which received significant media attention during their own times.

Captivated:  The Trials of Pamela Smart
was, I’m proud to say, directed by a former student of mine, Jeremiah Zagar.  The film’s subject was found guilty of murdering her husband in 1990, having been involved with a trio of students from a New Hampshire high school where she was a media technician.  Pamela Smart’s husband was caught having an affair shortly before the murder, so it was thought of and subsequently depicted as a revenge killing.  Although one of the teenagers testified on the courtroom stand that he had pulled the trigger, the jury didn’t buy it.  As an accomplice Smart was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and she remains behind bars at a New York state maximum-security prison today.

Smart’s case was the first televised murder trial to receive widespread media attention and continual coverage.  Many have argued that the media coverage had a direct effect on the jury’s verdict and the final outcome of Smart’s sentencing.  The case’s most famous media treatment was Gus Van Sant’s film To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard; the case also spawned a made-for-television courtroom drama with Helen Hunt in the central role.  Smart’s beauty queen looks and fixed, stoic gaze in nearly every existing image of her caused her to be dubbed “the ice princess.”  As Maynard perceptively comments when interviewed in the film, there’s no bigger cultural thrill than the archetype of taking down a beautiful woman.  The female professor who worked with Smart on her degrees earned in prison also notes that Smart was the brightest student she’d ever worked with in 34 years of teaching.

The film’s greatest strength is that it’s about so much more than just the trial itself.  It’s a fascinating and finely constructed exploration of how we (and the media) shape narratives, and how those narratives shape and misshape us, until the narratives themselves are all that we see.  Reality gradually becomes a fiction that bears little relation to reality in the end.  One of the film’s interviewees mentions that humans in televised situations lose their humanity, instead taking on the audience’s perceptions.  Truth gets upended and subjectified from every angle.

In a brilliant directorial move that seems influenced by the innovative interview techniques of celebrated documentarian Errol Morris, Zagar often films his commentators’ reactions to archival footage of the Smart case through projected images of the vintage television footage itself, so that we see both the archival images and the interviewees’ facial expressions simultaneously.  It’s an ingenious device that suggests how we ourselves have become overlaid by streams of images placed before us by the media.  Zagar also resizes the footage for a variety of vintage TV screens at various stages of the film, even using a curtained theater stage as a visual framework to bookend the movie.

The Dog, a documentary directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, was my favorite film from this year’s festival.  It tells the bizarre and fascinating tale of John Wojtowicz, who rose to infamy almost by accident in the summer of 1972, when he decided to rob a Brooklyn bank with two acquaintances to fund gender reassignment surgery for his boyfriend Ernie (later known as Liz Eden).  If the story sounds familiar, you’re correct:  it was the basis for Sidney Lumet’s popular 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, which starred Al Pacino as Wojtowicz.  Bank employees were held hostage, cops surrounded the establishment, and the would-be robbers had the audacity to have pizzas delivered to them at the bank at the height of the media buzz outside.

As usual, the best documentaries delve into the oddest material, and each figure that’s featured in this film is a full-fledged character.  From Wojtowicz’s first wife, Carmen, who’s as animated as a round pink cartoon cut-out come to life, to Wojtowicz’s wispy yet domineering mother, their personalities are all arresting because they’re all so unassumingly and unavoidably themselves. Wojtowicz commands attention throughout every scene in which he appears.  He’s a charismatic, fast-talking, self-proclaimed “pervert” who seemingly became gay when he woke up to find a fellow military officer giving him a blowjob earlier in his life.  Well-intentioned and also somewhat confused, he makes it easy to see why not one but three people (Carmen, Ernie, and John’s prison boyfriend George) were drawn into his romantic orbit and never able to leave it.

Not that it’s always that simple. During the burgeoning gay movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wojtowicz came under scrutiny by the gay rights organizations with which he was involved.  Members of the early Gay Activists Alliance felt that he was totally crazy, a diagnosis that seems increasingly possible as the documentary progresses.  He’s a hard figure to know whether or not to trust, yet he convincingly argues that Hollywood made $50 million from his crime via Lumet’s film, while he received only a couple thousand dollars worth of compensation.  His life is an interesting example of how people who follow the rules rarely make for intriguing storytelling.

Even more compelling is the unique cross-section of queer history that the film provides.  Wojtowicz lived through the closeted 1950s and early 1960s, the Stonewall Riots of 1969, and the beginnings of recognition of transgender identity in the 1970s and 1980s.  We sadly watch his startling physical decline over the decade that the documentarians recorded their interviews with him; he dwindles from a happily rotund raconteur to a haunted but still spirited wraith of a man who’s dying of cancer, as his mentally challenged brother rolls him around the Brooklyn Zoo in a wheelchair. Wojtowicz died in 2006.

My favorite among the narrative features that I saw at the festival this year was Ira Sachs’s beautiful and languidly paced Love Is Strange, starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.  I’d really been looking forward to seeing this film in the festival because so few mainstream movies focus on middle-aged or older gay male couples.  In this case, the characters have been living together in New York for 39 years.  Ben (Lithgow) is a painter, while George (Molina) is a musician and teacher who loses his job at a Catholic school after administrators see photos of the couple’s marriage ceremony on Facebook.  As a result, Ben and George also lose their apartment and are forced to move in with friends and relatives at separate locations in the city.

Although the movie’s central conflict feels a bit unlikely, it also seems totally plausible in today’s economy.  I admired how the film directly addresses a theme that almost never gets discussed:  how artistic or bohemian gay men of a certain age get left behind by the culture, financially and otherwise.  That element of the film is tempered by another key aspect.  The movie is a rich love letter to New York, or a specific version of New York, one that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent a good amount of time there; a soft-focused, burnished light suffuses many of the scenes.

Alongside this distinctive visual tone, the lead performances are totally pitch-perfect as well.  Somehow, Lithgow and Molina convey the close intimacy of men who’ve lived together in very close quarters for nearly four decades.  After they’ve been displaced from the comfort of their home, there’s a very moving scene that takes place on the small lower mattress of a bunk bed, where the pair of men snuggle face to face, gazing at each other with a long familiarity that only actors of this caliber can evoke for an audience.  I’ve enjoyed all of Ira Sachs’s films, and I think this is his finest film so far.

The Two Faces of January, an epic-scale thriller that’s set in Greece and directed by Hossein Amini, adapts Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel as high-gloss Hollywood fare that should actually fare rather well with the art-house crowd instead.  This sweeping period piece is propelled by a love triangle between a wealthy American couple played by Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst, and a handsome American traveler/translator played by Oscar Isaac.  As the two men compete for the affections of the same woman, a good deal of homoerotic tension builds between their characters, something that Highsmith clearly intended and that Mortensen and Isaac subtly portray.

I love the feeling of watching a movie and not being sure exactly where I’ve seen an actor before, and I love even more the feeling of finally realizing who that actor is.  I was mesmerized by Oscar Isaac’s face throughout this entire film and figured out by the end that he’s the guy who recently starred in the Coen Brothers’ movie Inside Llewyn Davis.  Shaving off his little beard has made all the difference; Isaac now resembles a young Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, along with the acting chops to merit those comparisons.

Isaac’s character, Rydel, becomes involved with Mortensen’s and Dunst’s married couple when he witnesses the aftermath of an unintentional murder.  For unexplained reasons, Rydel attempts to help the couple undo what can’t be undone, and with each step of their improvised escape plan, he only gets himself more deeply embroiled in their situation.  Although some may find the characters a bit too caricatured and the story’s abrupt plot twists a bit too jarring and clichéd, it’s important to keep in mind that Highsmith was a genre writer.  Sudden plot turns that might feel clunky and obvious in other movies are appropriate decisions here; moments of blunt violence fall like hammer blows.  I found the film to be thoroughly engaging from beginning to end.

A fun and related side-note:  at the festival’s press luncheon, I talked with superstar producer Christine Vachon’s assistant and asked him what the director Todd Haynes has been up to lately.  I was excited to learn that Haynes finished filming an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian-themed 1952 romance The Price of Salt earlier this year.  The movie, titled Carol, will star Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.  It was shot in my childhood hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, with the city’s famed Over-the-Rhine neighborhood standing in for old-school New York.

The most mainstream film that I saw at the festival this year was John Carney’s Begin Again, which retains the director’s popular formula from his Academy Award-winning movie Once.  Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo turn in energetic performances as a songwriter and a music industry rep on the skids, respectively.  I was literally flipping out in my seat at the back of the theater when I saw the words “music by Gregg Alexander” appear on the screen.  He’s always been one of my favorite musicians, so it’s great to hear such awesome new material, often sung by the character played by Adam Levine of the band Maroon 5.  (I wrote a long blog post about Gregg Alexander’s byzantine career back in 2010, so please feel free to check that one out, too.)

Finally, I want to comment briefly about one short film that I saw at the festival, a documentary by Austin Bunn and Robert Hazen titled Lavender Hill.  I’ve taught a college course on queer history and identity for the past 13 years now, and this film provides a wonderful missing link in the evolutionary chain towards LGBTQ liberation.  Lavender Hill, located in the Finger Lakes region near Ithaca, New York, was founded in the early 1970s as an 80-acre commune for gay men and lesbians, among the very first of its kind.  The film features thoughtful retrospective interviews with the core group of its living members, as well as hosting a reunion dinner for the commune’s original group 40 years later.  They reminisce about the magic of free love in that bygone era, which helped lead to the benefit of living the much more open lives that many LGBTQ individuals enjoy today.  The film’s vintage footage and overall vibe reminded me in some ways of the Radical Faeries gatherings that I’ve attended in Vermont for several years now, though the people in the film seemed closer back then, if only because their survival required it.

I thought about community a lot during the course of my past week at the festival.  Of course, film festivals are essentially about community, and not just artistic and commercial communities, but human community.  During a number of films, a feeling overcame me of being somehow at one with the audience, despite how individuated our own minds are whenever we’re watching anything.  What makes our perspectives of a film different while we’re viewing it?  What makes other viewers’ perspectives overlap with our own when we discuss a film afterwards?  It’s ironic and also a bit sad, admittedly, that I often feel closer to other people through movies than I do any other way, a commentary on the mediated times in which we live.  Images of other people and their stories can start to seem more real to us than the people on whom those stories and images are based.  The difference at a film festival is that you meet the actual people behind the images and start knowing them better, as well as meeting other filmgoers who feel inspired to do the same.